Film journalism has always been an integral concomitant within film paraphernalia. It has existed since the socio-technological upheaval caused by the rise of motion pictures and allowed cinephiles to refine their understandings of their favourite cinemas — what goes behind the scenes, directorial and cinematographic art, or just another list of fresh, upcoming productions — and even enriched the phenomenon of stardom. The West had already begun witnessing and celebrating the publications of Sight & Sound, Moving Picture News, American Cinematographer, or Screen Guide, for instance, between the mid–20s and early–30s. Despite the colossal developments the Bombay Film Industry has been making since 1913, India took about twenty years to have its first magazine in 1935 devoted to celebrating its indigenous film productions. It was called filmindia, and was founded by veteran director/writer/satirist/politician Mr Balkrishna Pandurang Patil, a.k.a Baburao Patel (1904–1982). Purportedly speaking and believing in sheer anecdotes, this transition from film direction to publishing/editing was grounded in Baburao Patel’s failure to become a good director. This underpins Patel’s hatred ‘for eminence, including the eminence of age and genius’, as Saadat Hasan Manto writes in Stars from Another Sky (1948–54), and justifies Patel’s disregard for the cinema of Guru Dutt or V. Shantaram. I’m, thus, impelled to believe that his reviews of films were biased, and driven by a knack of prejudice, nepotism, and animosity. Why didn’t he ever dislike a Mehboob Khan film?
Nevertheless, Baburao Patel was a remarkable personality, writer, humourist and satirist, features of which flung across the pages of filmindia. His writings were marked by vitriolic anger, an impeccable yet fascinating amalgam of dark humour and lampoon, purported honesty, unmissable sophistication, and a venomous sting. His influence within the film industry was undoubted, so it naturally influenced filmindia’s reputation as a vital testimonial of a film/star’s worth. The magazine’s film–review section was worshipped by producers, directors, actors, the public, and everyone else. It was speculated that Patel could ‘make or ruin careers’ (quoting Dev Anand) with just a single review; he did, too. Expectedly, Patel’s reviews, contained within filmindia, were often criticised as stemming from the same energies of jealousy/hatred that Manto spoke about; several actors of those times even had conflicts with him due to ideological differences or his sheer disregard for others’ perspectives — it’s rumoured that, in 1938, the fiery, Shanta Apte, barged into Patel’s office and beat him with a cane for having written something against her in the previous issue(s) of filmindia. I wonder why Patel didn’t report this in his huge magazine.
I visited the National Film Archives of India in Pune to peruse the archives of filmindia and Filmfare. I was flummoxed by reading an entire issue (April 1954) dedicated to celebrating Baburao Patel’s 50th birthday. This issue screamed about Patel’s unhealthy addiction for self–proclaimed prominence, as it contained various articles reiterating how great Patel is. Hefty praises from Sir Alexander Korda, William Dieterle, Subhash Rele, Adrian Brunel, Pt. Maulichandra Sharma, amongst others, coloured its pages: Patel was called ‘the ‘Adam’ of film journalism’, a ‘political prophet’, ‘a man of convictions’, and was even compared to George Bernard Shaw and Voltaire. Outstanding as they are, I felt both the language and content glistened with a tinge of hyperbole . . . a murderous exaggeration that overestimated Patel’s calibre and literary repertoire. I closed it at once. I also closed another fantastic issue featuring stupendous appraisals for Mehboob Khan. It’s difficult to digest Baburao Patel’s desire for flattery. Still, it’s also important to recognise that Patel was a ‘mighty colossus of film criticism’ who wrote with a ‘defiant and unflinching’ fashion, as David Abraham puts it (1954). His command over the English Language was inspiring, quite in affinity with the jaw-dropping finesse of Victorian poets and the bitterness of the Neo–Classicists. His writings reflected his awareness of history, philosophy, religion, politics, and literature, and despite having failed in high school — or, as we say in India, ‘matriculation’ — Patel demonstrated incomparable knowledge. These found different avenues within different corners of filmindia, which makes the magazine a fascinating potpourri of infectious laughter, gossip, and uncompromising savagery.
And while Manto may endorse my views about Baburao Patel and filmindia — in the more general sense that, later, its pages began illuminating the degeneration of ‘that artist [which had now]either turned into a cancer in his belly or now lay buried in the cut and blow–dried hair of Rita Carlyle [Patel’s secretary] or the beds of Padma Devil and Sushila, cursed by his two wives’ — Baburao Patel yet stands as a riveting phenomenon of Indian film history. He was revered then and is revered today. His contributions to film journalism/criticism in India provide sharp insights into the realities of the film system and become formidable resources for research and archival value. filmindia was a pioneer in several respects, and that revealed itself via the influence it exhibited on the political dynamics of the Bombay Film Industry . . . so much so that it re-echoed the reputation of Baburao Patel. His ‘Editor’s Mail’ insinuated his taste for bitter sarcasm and dark humour, the column called ‘Bombay Calling’ reaffirmed Patel’s disillusionment with the film industry and nationalist politics, and while we know what his reviews were like, filmindia holistically, though poignantly, served as the unhappy man’s open–vessel to the outcry. Even when the magazine dissolved to become Mother India in 1960 to redirect Patel’s attention towards social critique, paving his way into politics and elections. Until then, however, Baburao Patel’s filmindia never competed with other contemporary publications that mushroomed across — like Filmfare, Star & Style, and Screen — rather, it dominated the sectors of distribution and reception and remained the most-widely read, most-widely cited film magazines in India.
I’m not surprised when Sushila Rani writes that ‘many actors like Raj Kapoor, Prithviraj Kapoor, Kishore Sahu, K. N. Singh and others proudly [quoted]verbatim, lines of praise and appreciation of their work [published in the magazine]and [pasted]them in scrap books’ (filmindia, April 1954); this could be true considering the seriousness and intellectual tone of Patel’s writings. As one fan, Adrian Brunel, exclaims, ‘Like Shaw, Baburao Patel makes us think!’ Certainly, the amount of energy, diligence, and craft invested in each monthly issue of filmindia was bound to attract not just a public stir but an intellectually–provocative supernova. I find myself in a “love/hate” relationship with Patel: I sincerely despise him for never heralding auteurs like Guru Dutt and V. Shantaram, but equally get charmed by his sense of humour, satire, and diction. Baburao Patel’s language was incisive, volatile, and harsh, but simultaneously eloquent, clever, and bewitching, and I believe it’s this beckoning call of Patel and his literary style that pushes me to enjoy an arbitrary issue of filmindia every Sunday afternoon with a cup of cappuccino/hot chocolate, ending with bouts of uncontrollable laughter. That’s the charm of Baburao Patel; I’m quite unsure if he comprehended how, and to what extent, he wielded influence on his readers, though I have a hunch he did.
I like to believe it that way.